Cary Audio SLI-80HS integrated amplifier

New York City is forever being born. Lately, transnational capitalists are turning Manhattan into both an investment vehicle and playground for their platinum-level appetites. As real estate developments blot the city's skyline with competing glass-and-metal towers, mom-and-pop businesses collapse under rising rents and a lack of protection from predatory landlords—all the while such New York institutions as the White Horse Tavern, Cafe Edison, Bleecker Bob's, the Plaza Hotel, the Paris Theatre, and the Chelsea Hotel undergo massive change or disappear altogether. (Thank God for Katz's Delicatessen!)

NYC's endless churnings, vanishings, and (eventual) rebirths make me yearn for my stable southern roots: North Carolina is my home. Coincidentally, it's also the home of Cary Audio, whose tube-powered ascendance began in the early 1990s, when New York City was still relatively middle class, and I was a young, poor audiophile. My first serious amplification chain was an Audio Note M2 preamplifier and a well-used pair of Cary monoblocks. The Carys' creamy tone and saturated, syrupy sound engulfed my senses.

The ideal New York City may now be a thing of the past, yet Cary Audio seems to go from strength to strength. Take, for example, their long-standing and lauded SLI-80 Signature integrated amplifier, which has been upgraded to "Heritage Series" status as the SLI-80HS ($4495).

Design
Cary Audio's follow-up to the SLI-80 Signature integrated alters its forebear with a cosmetic makeover, solid-state rectification, and numerous internal upgrades. "The primary change with the SLI-80HS was to move from vacuum tube rectification to solid-state rectification," Cary Audio President Billy Wright told me in an email. "Solid-state rectification adds excellent pace and dynamics to the music. And there were internal upgrades related to wiring, resistors, caps, etc., that continue to improve the quality of sound and performance, and cosmetic changes made to the faceplate to bring the look more into line with our other, newer products. It is an effort to continue to add consistency to the product line and improve branding."

The SLI-80HS integrated amp uses two KT88 tetrode tubes per channel in a fixed-bias, push-pull, class-AB architecture. Assuming an 8 ohm load, the SLI-80HS is specified as generating 40Wpc in triode mode or 80Wpc in Ultralinear mode; that selection is made by toggling a pair of small switches on the amplifier's top plate. In front of the four KT88 tubes are two 6922 (input buffer/preamplifier) tubes and two 6SN7 (pre-driver/phase inverter) tubes. Behind the tubes stand the output transformers—mounted at an angle in the manner of earlier Cary amps and wound to their specifications by a US supplier—separated by the power transformer. Point-to-point wiring is employed throughout the SLI-80HS, as are top-flight parts, including German-made Mundorf coupling capacitors, United Chemi-Con electrolytic capacitors, Dale resistors, Eaton and C&K switches, and a Japanese-made Alps motorized volume control. Should you care to upgrade the stock SLI-80HS when ordering, a dropdown menu on Cary's website offers Hexfred rectifiers, Jensen (or higher-grade Mundorf) capacitors, WBT speaker binding posts, and a tube cage.

The handsome, steel-encased Cary measures 17" wide by 7" high by 16" deep—the height includes the amp's four rubber-composite feet—and weighs a manageable 42lb. The SLI-80HS is available with its front panel and knobs finished in either black or silver; also available is a choice of wooden side panels finished to match Klipsch's Heritage Series loudspeakers (which ties into the Cary's HS branding). My SLI-80HS review sample lacked the side panels, so I couldn't compare its finish to that of my in-house Klipsch Heresy IIIs.

The SLI-80HS's front-panel controls are straightforward, offering, left to right, power on/off toggle switch (replacing a rather mushy button on the older version), a small knob for selecting inputs 1, 2, or 3, a large volume dial, a smallish balance knob, a toggle switch to choose headphones or loudspeakers, a tiny receiver window for the 1.75" by 9" remote control, and a normal-sized (¼") headphone jack.

919cary.bac

Similarly Spartan and logically distributed, the SLI-80HS's back panel includes two pairs of speaker binding posts, those toggle switches for choosing 4 or 8 ohm taps from the output transformers, three RCA inputs marked Line 1, 2, and 3, RCA subwoofer outputs, a fuse holder for each channel, and an IEC connector receptacle.

Listening
Since adding the Kuzma Stabi R turntable and 4Point tonearm with Hana ML cartridge to my main system, I've experienced Hallelujah! moments on a regular basis. Obscene levels of solidity, refinement, grace, dynamics, power, and naturalness characterize the sound of music from my reference system—which, in addition to the above, contains a Tavish Audio Adagio phono preamp ($1490), a Schiit Ragnarok integrated amplifier ($1699), and DeVore O/93 loudspeakers ($8400/pair). Whether spinning records from Kirsten Flagstad, ZZ Top, or Hank Mobley, the reproduced textures wow me. I'm reveling in pungent colors, rich tones, and deep silences.

With the Cary SLI-80HS replacing my Schiit Ragnarok, and with the Cary set for triode mode and an 8 ohm load, the reveling continued, especially while spinning jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant's live album Dreams and Daggers (3 LPs, Mack Avenue Records MAC1120LP). The McLorin Salvant set is free of studio trickery or any overt production aesthetic, and thus sounds practically flat in terms of frequency response, if a mite veiled. The SLI-80HS gave me a front-row seat to McLorin Salvant's superior vocal artistry and her quartet's sophisticated and swinging flow.

Unlike my early Cary monoblocks, which were so syrupy they practically oozed, the SLI-80HS was a truth teller, with few opinions of its own. Still, I could tell from the way it allowed notes to bloom that it's a tube amplifier, even with its new solid-state rectification. Acoustic bass, bass drum, and low-pitched stringed-instrument notes were often plump, yet with beautiful bottom-end extension—indeed, I've never heard my favorite LPs played back with such bass depth. Unlike the Schiit Ragnarok, which exerts a muscular grip on low frequencies, the Cary's bottom octaves were, while clear and very lucid, also soft. The Cary threw a layered soundstage—it sounded practically 3D—and had plenty of realistic midrange color.

COMPANY INFO
Cary Audio
Chapel Hill Road
Raleigh, NC 27607
(919) 355-0010
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Doctor Fine's picture

Just wondering why there was no comparo against the wonderful Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum III with KT120s for tube power?
Seems like the Rogue is way better for half the price.
Doesn't Stereophile ever think about the competition?
This looks like a nice amp.
But the Rogue seems like it mops the floor with it.
For half the price.
Did I mention it is half the price?

Ortofan's picture

... some integrated circuits, those "cheap chips" that tube amp aficionados find so abhorrent.
http://www.rogueaudio.com/Images/CM3insidelarge.jpg

Cary amp for comparison:
https://cdn.head-fi.org/a/5141007.jpg

Poor Audiophile's picture

[Doesn't Stereophile ever think about the competition?] Yes, they often make camparos.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Get a couple of smiley faces for $4,495 ........ (see fig.11 and fig.12 in measurements section) :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum III integrated amp ($2,995) 100 WPC ultra-linear, is probably a better value for the money than this Cary integrated amp ........ The Rogue integrated probably measures better as well :-) ..........

MhtLion's picture

I haven't heard either. But, at least Cary looks better. :) Also, not sure if you can get a discount on Rogue, but more likely you can grab this Cary around 3.5k in a short time. That being said, I'm looking forward for a good review on Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum III. It really does look like a super amp for the price.

tonykaz's picture

I read ( and re-read ) this exciting experience wishing that I was there.

Those Klispch Loudspeakers were part of it ( along with all the rest of the gear working properly ).

I used to have fun evaluating unknown gear ( along with my Sales Staff , after hours, with Pizza and Vodka ).

This Review reads like an important discovery being made. I'm suspecting it's the Loudspeakers rewarding a darn good Amplifier performance.

It kinda feels like Mr. Micallef's writing is floating off the Magazine Pages to form images. Phew.

Great Music, Great System, Great Writing, Great Reviewing, Great Find !

The 5 Gs

Thank you for a Great read.

Tony in Venice

misterc59's picture

It's not digital! Can't possibly be selling well, nor be convenient, what with replacing tubes and all.

Cheers,
Terry

tonykaz's picture

Great Tubes create magic, lesser tubes deliver mediocrity. My time being a Dealer for Conrad Johnson supports me with that conclusion.

No.2 ) I'll wager that Cary will only make a hundred of these Amps, so, it probably won't ever be a "Seller" like Schiit are doing with their Product Runs.

Amps deliver AC which is Analog, isn't it? Even Class D is Analog, as far as I can tell.

Tube Sound Quality is the Variable that scares me now-a-days. Owning Tube Gear demands & requires a certain devotion to Tube Sourcing from folks like Kevin Deal and others. Just discovering Tubes and tube-rolling is a Complete Hobby onto itself ( they even have their own network on Head Fi ) .

Great Tubes in good gear becomes Spectacular...

...at a Price $$$.

Tony in Venice

misterc59's picture

However, I find your comment a bit out of character since you have previously been known to "condemn" analog products.
You have extolled the virtues of digital, thus my consternation.

Please enlighten me. (exorbitant and extreme characterizations for either digital or analog notwithstanding as both have budget products for sale)

I listen to both digital and analog with spectacular results.

Regards,
Terry

tonykaz's picture

All Audio is Analog

Back in the Day, my Day, all sources of music were delivered as Analog sources. I was ( and still am ) deep into Analog Mediums and Analog Playback Systems.

But...

I recognize and embrace the efficient Red Book Storage System. I fully recommend it in preference to the Super Expensive ( by comparison ) Vinyl Playback Systems.

Here's Why:

Vinyl is pricy to buy, good vinyl ( Chad Kassem's ) is super pricy ( as it probably should be ).

Vinyl requires a Storage System: Sturdy Shelves and a safe room to house same. Storage is pricy commitment.

Vinyl Playback is fragile in terms of Transducer purchase ( which mandates regular upgrading & maintenance regimens ). I ended up collecting the musical Koetsu Range.

Vinyl Record Players can last Decades but seem to get upgraded every year or so. The Big VPI is the Hot One Now. ( I'm a VPI fan and was one of their Dealers during Shela's Era. )

I love the Modest Sumiko MMT Arm but regular Vinyl people seem to gravitate to ever more expensive Arms.

Wire is critical to the performance of Phono Cartridges, so upgrading the little phono wires becomes a useful improvement. See Karen Sumner at Transparent for help here ( bring a couple grand )

Phono Preamps ( RIAA ) have a range desirable performances and costs. Better ones are often within reach financially ( like that $4,000 one being reviewed in this issue ).

Proper Record Cleaning is required and involves equipment, chemicals, space and Time. The best record cleaning mandates a 30 minute process and a $800 investment minimum.

IN Contrast

Red Book CD played thru the PS Audio Player is a simple system.

Now-a-days the Streaming outfits will transport we Audiophiles ( Stereophiles ) into the 21st Century without the complexity I've been living with since the 1950s.

Phew, for gods sake!

Tony in Venice

ps. and you don't have to listen to another dam Beatles song for the millionth dam time

Ortofan's picture

... for under $1K.

https://www.lehmannaudio.com/phono-stages/black-cube-se-ii.html

https://www.lehmannaudio.com/assets/products/black_cube_se_II/reviews/EN_review_Hifi_News_02_2010_SEII_screen.pdf

https://www.analogplanet.com/content/lehmann-audio-black-cube-se-ii-mmmc-phono-preamp-reviewed

Why would you ever want to use a moving-coil type cartridge?

http://www.regonaudio.com/Stanton881AudioTechnicaATML70.html

https://sound-smith.com/articles/fixed-coil-vs-moving-coil-why-make-jump-different-technology

tonykaz's picture

Thanks for mentioning this device

But...

it's no-longer of interest to me, personally.

Vinyl is my Commercial and personal history.

Now-a-days my Lifetime Vinyl Collection is in Storage, safely packed away, waiting to be inherited by some yet unborn Audiophile, to whom I would/could legitimately recommend a nice 16/44 System for it's preferential utility.

By the way:

Moving Coil Phono Cartridges have far less suspended mass. They also feature improved Compliance making them easier for Arm Mass to resist.

Moving Coil is probably more fragile than MM so Annual Costs will be horrible in today's market where a proper Phono Cart. will cost $15,000 plus. for gods sake, pppppphhhhheeewwww !

The actual cost of Phono makes it prohibitive for "normal" folks that just want to have music.

My point of view is that Vinyl nowadays is a Con ( super ouch ). That coming from a person that was selling $1,500 Koetsu Phono Cartridges.

Tony in Venice

ps. I'm prepared to take all the HEAT this Industry wants to inflict on me. RedBook is the only practical solution for us Practical Stereophile readers not having a lifetime commitment to music reproduction. Yet, I still admire Chad Kassem and all the work he and his crew are doing. Chad stands alone as the Man of Integrity in the Vinyl World.

Ortofan's picture

... "the actual cost of Phono makes it prohibitive for "normal" folks that just want to have music."

The cost of the AR turntable and Stanton cartridge - not including a phono pre-amp - that I started out with a few decades ago equates to about $1200, when adjusted for inflation.

$1200 today will buy a Technics SL-1500C turntable, which includes a pre-mounted Ortofon 2M Red cartridge and a built-in phono preamp.
https://www.technics.com/us/products/premium-class/direct-drive-turntable-system-sl-1500c.html

What Hi-Fi gives in a 5 star rating, calling it "a beautifully made, fuss-free record player that sounds great."
https://www.whathifi.com/us/reviews/technics-sl-1500c

What more do "normal" folks that just want to have music need for phono playback?

tonykaz's picture

Phono is quite normal for what "we" consider Normal.

However,

21st. Century Normal is being sorted out, folks are blending the iPhone 12 feature set into their daily lives, Tesla Programers are creating the Driverless Car and the entire World is returning to 100% Solar Power.

I suspect that Fossil Based Music Storage Systems will not find wide acceptance as Society & Civilization advances and evolves.

As a 1st. Generation Audiophile, I feel like I'm a Jurassic Era holdover thanks to digital MRI, Catscans and the University of Michigan's skilled Cardiologists. I now have a wide range of optional hobby activities to pursue: Woodworking with traditional hand tools, Bicycling my 500 miles per month as I now live in a Bicyclist's Paradise, Kayaking Florida's inland waterways is wonderful, maintaining a Tropical Botanical Garden, frequent peaceful Sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico, socializing with neighbors who are suffering from "Acute Loss of Lifelong Friends" syndrome and I now have Florida's High Quality of Life on daily offer.

I won Life's Lottery and Live in a Incubator for old people.

My hearing tapers off over 8k. but I don't notice it as much as my Wife. ( I often don't hear what she's saying )

Tony in Venice

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Mr.Tony, you are making some of us around here feel jealous, describing your current life style :-) ........

tonykaz's picture

Converse of today, I lived my entire life in stinky, filthy, noisy, Ultra-dangerous Factories.

By some quirk of technology, I'm surviving where my ancestors & peers only lived 50 years or so.

High quality Life is now available.

Click the Ruby Slippers together and return to Paradise, ( just like in the Wizzard of Oz )

This is my last Stop before I move to Oakwood Cemetery,

Tony in Venice

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Vincent Audio MM/MC PHO-8 phono-stage $450 ......... Audio Advisor is selling it for $300 :-) ..........

JRT's picture

Consider the inflexibility of the integration in this integrated amplifier in a system where the amplifier imposes very significant signal processing of limited variability.

In the phrase signal processing, in this context, I am referring to the mix of linear distortions further modulated by varied load impedance, and the addition of nonlinearities (nonlinear distortions and noise) which are also modulated (nonlinearly) by variation in signal, by variation in load impedance, and by variation in back EMF. It imposes signal processing integrated into the design and is not separable, cannot be removed from the signal chain, and that inseparability is the problem.

This amplifier was intentionally designed to _not_ provide load invariant clean gain, as would be provided by other very different choices in amplifiers such as the Benchmark Media AHB2 (is not an integrated amplifier, but provides good example of load invariant clean gain).

Rather this amplifier under review is intended to change the sound, analgous to a red pizza sauce where the flavor of the sauce can be changed by adding a mix of spices. And that is where the integration is a problem. In using this amplifier, the same pizza sauce is applied to everything. While you can swap tubes to change the flavor of the sauce, you cannot easily change the circuitry and output transformer, so while you can change the amount of some spices in the pizza sauce, it will still be pizza sauce. And that pizza sauce might not be what you want on your pancakes, on your sushi, on your beef steak, on your fish tacos, on your icecream, in your wine, in your scotch whiskey, in your vodka, in your rootbeer, etc.

The point here is that the signal processing is integrated into this integrated amplifier, is inseparable. You might enjoy that processing with some material, but you will have to suffer with it on other material that would be degraded by this sort of signal processing. Separate components can be more flexibly swapped out or modified to change sound.

Or, I would strongly suggest a very different solution, one that simply separates out added signal processing. Put it inside of a processing loop that can be bypassed when it is not desired. I would argue that the main system should be comprised of neutral gain stages to avoid reprocessing material that does not need reprocessing and might be degraded by reprocessing. That system can be separate components, or can have integrated functionality, but should be capable of providing load invariant clean gain when that is desired.

I recognize that some poorly recorded, poorly mixed, poorly mastered material might have flaws corrected or masked with further processing. The processing can include tube buffers, parametric equalizers, etc., and different problems might have different processing solutions, but only include them when that flavor of signal processing is desired, and bypass when it is not desired, or vary it when a different signal processing is desired.

I would also suggest that with some recordings, it might be better to experiment and apply the signal processing in your own remastering efforts, and save those to FLAC files for later replay through systems that would then not need to provide added processing because the processing would exist in your remastering efforts.

Bottom line take away... A separate processing loop in a system with load invariant clean gain stages is a better solution than using pizza sauce on your pancakes.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

It may work ok as a headphone amp ........ The headphone output impedance could work alright even with low impedance headphones with 20-30 Ohm impedance ........ Of course, it will work well with high impedance headphones :-) .........

JRT's picture

If seeking only a headphone amplifier and no other functionality, just something that will provide load invariant clean gain to drive headphones, I see no need to look beyond the new $400 Monoprice Monolith THX 887. And that might be overkill, as less expensive solutions may be adequate.

edit (27 Sep 2019): I need to walk that back, need to retract my statement. While I am confident that the new Monoprice Monolith THX 887 has a good amplifier section, I do not currently know enough about the attenuator used to control level, the volume control, if that works well enough or not, for highest quality audio.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Agreed ......... There are some tube headphone amps selling for around $5k, which are not integrated amps and cannot be used for driving loudspeakers ......... This Cary can be used for both :-) ...........

RH's picture

JRT wrote: "A separate processing loop in a system with load invariant clean gain stages is a better solution than using pizza sauce on your pancakes."

JRT, you are thinking like an engineer. And that's great. If the approach you just wrote about described why you would never use the Cary amp, and instead employ flexible alteration that can be taken out of the loop, then it makes perfect sense to me.

Other people seem to get along well with other approaches, due to what they like along with other considerations in how they apportion their attention and time.

So for instance, I use tube amps (mostly my old Conrad Johnson amps). I've used them for 25 years because I like the subtle difference they bring to the table, which for me pay large *subjective* dividends (the type of characteristics associated with classic tube sound - a slight enriching of the sound, a bit fuller and rounder, sibilance and other artifacts seem to be less aggressive, voices seem more overall natural to me, etc).

The CJ amps are not neutral. And from what I've read whatever the distortions it may impart, it seems dubious that all of them could be replicated only by say, an eq (for sake of argument; I know other processing now exists of course). But for sake of argument, even IF I could replicated the sound using a solid state amp and an eq, I don't care to. Why? First of all, I feel no need. The slight modulating of the sound imparted by my tube amp does everything I need in nudging it towards sound I enjoy. I like pretty much everything I hear through my system, and never feel the need to twiddle anything in or out. In fact, I had a great digital eq in my system (Z-systems RDP-1) for something like 20 years and I just never felt compelled to use it (finally sold it).

So for me, the tube amp imparts a sort of "set and forget" quality to the sound, leaving me with no desire to fiddle with added eqs or processors in the loop, to alter when playing different program material.

Plus, there's the "cool gear" aspect - I like tube amps. There's a romance to them as gear, the cool look, the glowing tubes, the historical aspect, that I personally don't get in owning an SS amp (and I've owned SS amps, Bryston, Harmon Kardon and others).

Now has my CJ amp added "pizza sauce" to everything? No. Not in my estimation. There are some subtle qualities I spoke of, but they are utterly dwarfed by the scale of sonic characteristics that come along with any new recording played on the system. I hear all the sonic details, all the production choices and effects, everything, that I hear when an SS amp is powering the system. Something in a dry acoustic sounds that way, a thin recording sounds thin, powerful recordings powerful...every bit of gross sonic characteristic that really makes recordings sound different is there. So it's not remotely like making everything taste the same.

It still seems to me an open question as to whether the added processing you speak of would exactly duplicate whatever the Cary may be doing in terms of distortions. But even if so, there are the above considerations for other people.

There is a similar question about loudspeakers. Given that it is easier than ever before to find neutral, balanced, well-measuring loudspeakers, why would anyone choose otherwise? If you like some coloration to your sound, well buy a neutral speaker, add an eq or processor, and then you can add or subtract as you like. Again, makes perfect sense for someone of a certain mind-set and inclinations.

But what if one discovers that a loudspeaker designer has produced a speaker with some level of deviation from neutral or coloration...but it sounds terrific to you! You play all your beloved music and you love everything you hear. Well, then that audiophile has found essentially a "set and forget" sound that he likes and there is no need to buy another speaker and fiddle with additional processing. And for many of the speakers that are colored that people have really liked, it would take some real knowledge of how to use eq or digital processing to exactly mimic the sonic/distortion profile of those colored speakers....if it's even possible! (And given the variety of ways speaker designs can sound different that seems dubious). So given certain priorities, buying the speaker that was designed in a way that already pleases your ear is the simpler move. It's like gardening; I could probably do a decent job on my garden myself, if I cared to learn about it and put in the effort. But that's not where I care to apportion my time, so I hire a gardener once a year to come by and do it. Other people really get in to gardening, so good on them!

So my point is that a totally sensible case can be made, as you have made it, for avoiding introducing colorations as a "fixed" part of the chain. But introducing some coloration in a fixed way can also satisfy other people's interests, in a rationally defensible way as well. The Cary amp may alter the sound of someone's system in just the way he enjoys, leaving that audiophile with no need or desire to fiddle with an added processor that may or may not even replicate what the Cary amp is doing.

Cheers!

JRT's picture

You cannot replicate the added nonlinearities with linear equalization. I did not suggest that you can.

That said, there are some relatively new digital audio workstation (DAW) plugins that utilize processing in the computer's GPU to simulate nonlinearities in the sound of some actual pro audio gear by simulating the linear and nonlinear behavior of same. (microphone tube preamps, dynamic range compressors, tape saturation, etc.)

Acoustica Audio's Acqua platform is one rather popular example.
https://www.acustica-audio.com/store/t/acqua

I remain somewhat skeptical that a high quality tube amplifier might be closely replicated on a contemporary GPU.

I would suggest a tube buffer (shorthand phrase commonly used in some circles to describe a near unity gain stage that uses vacuum tubes) to add nonlinearities when that effect is desired. Place the tube buffer in a processing loop that can be bypassed.

https://www.google.com/search?q=tube+buffer

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Pizza sauce on pancakes ........ May be I should look into that idea further :-) ........

Ortofan's picture

... https://www.bettycrocker.com/how-to/tipslibrary/cooking-tips/mini-pizza-pancakes

Bogolu Haranath's picture

They look delicious ........ Wonder why the pizza chains are not making these? ........ Does Shaq read Stereophile and visit Stereophile website? :-) .........

helomech's picture

ratings are a trend among Cary amps it seems.

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